Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2015

Weekend reading: Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids

Kiera Butler.  Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids & How its Lessons Could Change Food & Farming Forever.  University of California Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)


Kiera Butler usually writes for Mother Jones (her latest is about how McDonald’s markets to kids) but this time took on an investigative reporter’s immersion into the world of 4-H, the venerable youth-mentoring program aimed at “growing confident kids.”

Although the program’s website says “4-H is the youth development program of our nation’s Cooperative Extension System & USDA,” you have to look hard to see how it relates to its farming origins.

Butler follows several individual 4-H members, young teenagers, who are deeply engaged in raising and showing animals at county fairs.  She follows their experiences for a year and observes their demonstrable growth in skills, confidence, and the handling of disappointment.  These are the impressive accomplishments of this program.

But she is also well aware of the many contradictions of 4-H: the high cost of participation, its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, its promotion of the values of industrial agriculture, the divide between urban and rural members, and the surprising lack of attention to what agriculture is about and its importance to the economy and society.

Her conclusion: 4-H needs to be challenged to promote critical thinking about agriculture.

Raise is a good read and is thoroughly convincing about the need for such thinking.

Mar 19 2015

Food politics: A picture worth a thousand words…




Thanks to my NYU colleague Marie Bragg for sending this along.  She particularly likes the reflection of the school bus passing by.

In case you can’t read it, it says: “Hospital Employees receive 10% off.  Must show valid hospital i.d.”

Don’t miss the heart monitor line in the middle.

Mar 18 2015

Dietitians in turmoil over conflicts of interest: it’s about time

My e-mail inbox is filled with items about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association).  Its “seal of approval” on Kraft cheese singles (as discussed in an earlier post) was embarrassing—so embarrassing that it was discussed by Jon Stewart: “The Academy is an Academy in the same way this [Kraft Singles] is cheese” (the clip starts at 4:37).

The Onion also had some fun with this.

But now there is even more about how food companies buy the opinions of dietitians.

Candice Choi writes about how Coca-Cola pays dietitians to promote its drinks as healthy snacks (for an example of one of the paid posts, click here).  She explains that the dietitians

wrote online posts for American Heart Month, with each including a mini-can of Coke or soda as a snack idea. The pieces — which appeared on nutrition blogs and other sites including those of major newspapers — offer a window into the many ways food companies work behind the scenes to cast their products in a positive light, often with the help of third parties who are seen as trusted authorities.

Ms. Choi quotes a Coca-Cola spokesman:

“We have a network of dietitians we work with,” said Sheidler, who declined to say how much the company pays experts. “Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent.”

Other companies including Kellogg and General Mills have used strategies like providing continuing education classes for dietitians, funding studies that burnish the nutritional images of their products and offering newsletters for health experts. PepsiCo Inc. has also worked with dietitians who suggest its Frito-Lay and Tostito chips in local TV segments on healthy eating.

These are individual actions.  But at last the dietetic membership is objecting to the Academy’s partnership with Kraft.

  1. They have started a petition to #RepealTheSeal.
  2. The President of the New York State AND chapter (NYSAND), Molly Morgan, sent out a note in support of the petition.

Thank you to the many of you that have expressed your concern and disappointment about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnership with Kraft. This issue has been reviewed carefully by the NYSAND Board of Directors and the entire board is in support of actively taking steps to share our members concerns. Below are the action steps that NYSAND is taking:

–       Last week (March 11, 2015) the NYSAND Sponsorship Task Force recommendations were received and yesterday (March 16, 2015) at the March NYSAND Board of Directors meeting the Sponsorship Task Force recommendations were reviewed. Please stay tuned for more updates and note that a motion will be forth coming this week for the board to take the next step in addressing sponsorship for NYSAND.

–       Today (March 17, 2015) a letter was sent to the Academy president and emailed to several Academy leaders expressing the views that our members have shared and that as an Affiliate we are not comfortable responding with the talking points provided by the Academy on this issue.

–       Dietitians have started a petition, “Repeal the Seal”; NYSAND will be sharing this on our Affiliate Facebook and Twitter pages and encourages all members who share the concern to sign the petition as well. CLICK HERE to sign the petition.

3.  The AND national CEO, Patricia M. Babjak, sent out this letter to members, also on March 17:

Let me begin by apologizing for the concerns caused by the education initiative with Kraft. The Academy and the Foundation are listening. As a member-driven organization, the Academy’s staff and leadership hear your concerns and welcome your input.

Unfortunately, recent news articles misstated a collaboration as a Kids Eat Right “endorsement” of Kraft Singles, and that it represents a “seal of approval” from Kids Eat Right, the Foundation, or the Academy. It is not an endorsement. It is not a seal of approval. We understand this distinction is of little consequence to many Academy members who are concerned with the perception. We are working on a solution.

In addition, we are working to establish a joint, member-driven Member Advisory Panel. This Panel will work closely with both Boards to:

  • Establish dialogue with members
  • Gather input and give feedback on member issues
  • Make specific recommendations

Recognizing sponsorship as a significant issue of concern among members, the House of Delegates leadership team, who also serve on the Board of Directors, scheduled a dialogue on sponsorship for the upcoming virtual House of Delegates meeting, May 3. We encourage all members to reach out to your delegates and share your thoughts on the benefits of, concerns about and suggestions for the sponsorship program. The Academy and Foundation Boards are looking forward to your input.

Applause to members who are speaking out.

As I said in an interview with TakePart:

The food companies have learned from tobacco and drugs and other industries like that how to play this game…Let’s confuse the science, let’s cast doubt on the science, let’s shoot the messenger, let’s sow confusion.

But since everyone has to eat, the food industry has been given a pass on its pay-to-play practices….

The capital N news…is that dietitians are fighting back at last.

I hope they join Dietitians for Professional Integrity and insist that the leadership respond to their concerns.

AdditionA dietitian sends this communication from the Executive Board of the California Dietetic Association to members about the Kraft situation:

We would like to direct your attention to what the California Dietetic Association (CDA) has done to address our own issues surrounding sponsorship. We heard your concerns regarding CDA Annual Conference sponsorship and we have listened. We voted and McDonalds was not invited as a sponsor in 2015. This decision has impacted our finances; however, we believe it was important to respond to our member feedback. In addition, an ad hoc committee approved by the CDA executive board, reevaluated the sponsorship guidelines. The new sponsorship policy will be posted soon on

Mar 16 2015

Conflicts of interest in nutrition research: recent examples

I’ve been collecting examples of conflicted research for the past week or so.  These are studies paid for in part by food businesses or trade associations with a vested financial interest in the outcome of the research.

These almost invariably promote the financial interests of the sponsor.  To wit:

Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trialby Daniela Mastroiacovo, Catherine Kwik-Uribe, Davide Grassi, Stefano Necozione, Angelo Raffaele, Luana Pistacchio, Roberta Righetti, Raffaella Bocale, Maria Carmela Lechiara, Carmine Marini, Claudio Ferri, and Giovambattista Desideri.  Am J Clin Nutr 2015; 101:538-548 doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.092189.

  • Conclusion: These data suggest that the habitual intake of flavanols can support healthy cognitive function with age.
  • Sponsor: Mars, Inc.

Sugar-Sweetened Product Consumption Alters Glucose Homeostasis Compared with Dairy Product Consumption in Men and Women at Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, by Kevin C Maki, Kristin M Nieman, Arianne L Schild, Valerie N Kaden, Andrea L Lawless, Kathleen M Kelley, and Tia M Rains.  J Nutr. 2015; 145:459-466 doi:10.3945/jn.114.204503.

  • Conclusion: These results suggest that SSP consumption is associated with less favorable values for HOMA2–%S, LMTT disposition index, HDL cholesterol, and serum 25(OH)D in men and women at risk of T2DM vs. baseline values and values during dairy product consumption.
  • Sponsor: Dairy Research Institute/National Dairy Council

Squeezing Fact from Fiction about 100% Fruit Juice, by Roger Clemens, Adam Drewnowski, Mario G Ferruzzi, Cheryl D Toner, and Diane Welland. Adv Nutr 2015;6: 236S-243S. doi: 10.3945/​an.114.007328.

  • Conclusion:  The preponderance of evidence supports the position that 100% fruit juice delivers essential nutrients and phytonutrients, provides year-round access to a variety of fruits, and is a cost-effective way to help people meet fruit recommendations.
  • Sponsor: Juice Products Association

Can probiotic yogurt prevent diarrhoea in children on antibiotics? A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study, by Michael J FoxKiran D K AhujaIain K RobertsonMadeleine J BallRajaraman D Eri.  BMJ Open 2015;5:e006474.  doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006474.

  • Conclusion: A yogurt combination of LGG, La-5 and Bb-12 is an effective method for reducing the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea in children.
  • Sponsor: Parmelat Australia

Chronic consumption of flavanone-rich orange juice is associated with cognitive benefits: an 8-wk, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in healthy older adults, by Rebecca J Kean, Daniel J Lamport, Georgina F Dodd, Jayne E Freeman, Claire M Williams, Judi A Ellis, Laurie T Butler, and Jeremy PE Spencer.  Am J Clin Nutr 2015; 101:506-514 doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.088518.

  • Conclusion: Chronic daily consumption of flavanone-rich 100% orange juice over 8 wk is beneficial for cognitive function in healthy older adults.
  • Sponsor: Partially funded by the State of Florida Government, Florida Department of Citrus.  The authors report: “Florida Citrus helped designed [sic] the research. None of the authors reported a conflict of interest related to the study.”

Dairy consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease: an updated meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies, by Li-Qiang Qin PhD, Jia-Ying Xu PhD, Shu-Fen Han PhD, Zeng-Li Zhang PhD, You-You Zhao PhD, Ignatius MY Szeto PhD.   Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2015 Mar;24(1):90-100. doi: 10.6133/apjcn.2015.24.1.09.

  • Conclusion This meta-analysis provided further evidence supporting the beneficial effect of dairy consumption on CVD. Low-fat dairy products and cheese may protect against stroke or CHD incidence.
  • Sponsor: Nestec Ltd. (Nestlé R&D (China) Ltd.  Two of the authors work for the company (to which I am not related).

In each of these cases, the sponsors got what they paid for.  Recent sponsored studies have not come to conclusions contrary to the interests of the sponsor.


You decide.

Mar 13 2015

Dietitians put seal on Kraft Singles (you can’t make this stuff up)

As reported in today’s New York Times, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association) has licensed its Kids Eat Right seal to—get this— Kraft Singles.

But no, AND says, this is not an endorsement.  Kraft is merely a “proud supporter of” AND’s Kids Eat Right program.

As the Times understates the matter,

Over the last few years, the academy been criticized from some of its members and health advocates over what they contend are its overly cozy ties to industry.

Kraft is well known as a sponsor of AND.  Such seals are usually money-raising gimmicks.

I’m wondering if “proud supporter of” means that Kraft pays AND for use of this seal. If so, I’d like to know what the seal costs.

AND members: do any of you know?

Recall the debacle over the Smart Choices logo some years ago.

The press had a field day with the Smart Choices logo on Froot Loops.  As Rebecca Ruiz at Forbes puts it, “the uproar over the program has conveyed a definitive message to industry: Don’t try to disguise a nutritional sin with a stamp of approval.”

Somehow, Kraft and AND seem to have missed this lesson.

Additions: Andy Bellatti sends these links to a statement from Sonja Connor, AND’s president and the website describing the program.

Thanks to Yoni Freedhoff for sending this explanation:



And this enlightening note from ABC News:

The academy…said the appearance of the logo on the processed cheese product is not an endorsement or seal of approval. It’s more like an ad for Kids Eat Right, according to the academy, though, in a reversal of how most ads work, Kraft paid the advertiser — the academy — an undisclosed amount to place the logo.

Mar 12 2015

New Scientist: Cigarettes get plain packets – will junk food be next?

Here is the online version of my commentary in New Scientist, March 14, 2015:24-25.

I submitted an illustration with it, which the editors did not use.  It’s from the Ontario Medical Association.


Cigarettes get plain packets – will junk food be next?

The tobacco industry is fighting moves to sell cigarettes in plain packs by claiming food manufacturers will be hit next. Will they?

ANTI-SMOKING advocates will be delighted. MPs have today voted in favour of introducing uniform packaging for cigarettes in the UK. That plain wrappers will undoubtedly further reduce smoking, especially among young people, is best confirmed by the tobacco industry’s vast opposition to this government measure and positive evidence from Australia, the first country to adopt it.

Along with lobbying and appeals to the World Trade Organization, the tobacco industry, when under attack, inevitably wheels out well-worn arguments about the nanny state, personal freedom, lack of scientific substantiation, and losses in jobs and tax revenues.

So to perk up its tired and thoroughly discredited campaign, the tobacco folks have added a new argument. Requiring plain wrappers on cigarettes, they say, is a slippery slope: next will be alcohol, sugary drinks and fast food. This argument immediately raises questions. Is it serious or just a red herring? Should the public health community lobby for plain wrappers to promote healthier food choices, or just dismiss it as another tobacco industry scare tactic?

Let me state from the outset that foods cannot be subject to the same level of regulatory intervention as cigarettes. The public health objective for tobacco is to end its use. So for cigarettes the rationale for plain wrappers is well established. Company logos, attractive images, descriptive statements, package colours and key words all promote purchases. Plain wrappers discourage buying, especially along with other measures such as bans on advertising, smoke-free policies, taxes and health warnings.

Australia’s pioneering law specified precise details of pack design, warning images and statements. The result: cigarette brands all look much alike. Most reports say plain packaging boosts negative perceptions of cigarettes among smokers and increases their desire to quit. Australia expects plain packaging to further reduce its smoking rate, which, at 12.8 per cent, is already among the world’s lowest. Along with the UK, New Zealand and Ireland are well on the way to adding plain packaging to their anti-smoking arsenal. More nations are considering it.

Which is all bad news for the tobacco industry. So it ramps up the slippery slope argument, hoping the food industry will support its fight against plain wrappers. It cites examples such as the regulation of infant formula in South Africa, where pictures of babies on labels are forbidden; that’s a big problem for the Gerber food brand – Gerber’s company logo is a smiling baby.

But those peddling the slippery slope idea ignore the fact that the health message for tobacco is simple: stop smoking. But beyond tobacco, it is more complex. For alcohol it is a little more nuanced: drink moderately, if at all. For food it is much more nuanced. Food is not optional; we must eat to live. Nutritional quality varies widely. Foods are spread across a spectrum from unhealthy to healthy, from soft drinks (no nutrients) to carrots or fish (many nutrients). Most fall somewhere in between. What’s more, an occasional soft drink is fine; daily guzzling is not. So the advice is to choose the healthy and avoid or eat less junk, both in the context of calorie intake and expenditure.

Is there any evidence that plain packaging for unhealthy foods would reduce demand? Research has focused on marketing’s effect on children’s food preferences, demands and consumption. Brands and packages sell foods and drinks, and even very young children recognise and desire popular brands. When researchers compare the responses of children to the same foods wrapped in plain paper or in wrappers with company logos, bright colours or cartoon characters, kids invariably prefer the more exciting packaging.

But the problem is deciding which foods and beverages might call for plain wrappers. For anything but soft drinks and confectionery, the decisions look too vexing. Rather than having to deal with such difficulties, health advocates prefer to focus on interventions that are easier to justify – scientifically and politically.

We know that some regulations and market interventions –analogous to, if not the same as those aimed at smoking cessation – are essential for reducing the damage from harmful products. If not plain packaging, then what? Studies suggest small benefits from a long list of interventions such as taxes, caps on portion size, front-of-package traffic-light labels, nutrition standards for school meals, advertising restrictions, and elimination of toys from fast food meals and cartoons from packaging. Rather than dealing with the impossible politics of plain wrappers on foods, health advocates increasingly favour warning labels.

These first appeared on cigarette packs in the 1960s and have been considered for food products since the early 1990s. Heart disease researchers suggested that foods high in calories and fat should display labels such as: “The fat content of this food may contribute to heart disease.” More recently, health advocates in California and New York proposed warning labels on sugary drinks. The Ontario Medical Association takes a similar view: “To stop the obesity crisis, governments must apply the lessons learned from successful anti-tobacco campaigns.” It has mocked up examples of warnings on foods.

Although no warning label law has passed so far, such messages are the logical next step in promoting healthy food choices, in the same way that plain wrappers are the next logical step for all cigarette packages. Health advocates should recognise the slippery slope argument for the typical tobacco ploy that it is.



Mar 11 2015

Study documents sugar industry influence on dental research in the 1960s and 1970s

A new study in PLoS Medicine provides documentary evidence of sugar industry manipulation of research on dental caries in the 1960s and 1970s.

The paper is a formal presentation of an article in Mother Jones (which I wrote about in a previous post).

The researchers are at UCSF, which sent out a press release:

A newly discovered cache of industry documents reveals that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and ‘70s to develop a federal research program focused on approaches other than sugar reduction to prevent tooth decay in American children.

The archive of 319 industry documents, which were uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois, revealed that a sugar industry trade organization representing 30 international members had accepted the fact that sugar caused tooth decay as early as 1950, and adopted a strategy aimed at identifying alternative approaches to reducing tooth decay.

These approaches, as the article explains, involved encouraging the NIH to do research on mitigating or preventing tooth decay, which is fine in theory, but in practice distracted the dental research community from trying to discourage sugar consumption.

The analysis showed that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sugar industry funded research in collaboration with allied food industries on enzymes to break up dental plaque and a vaccine against tooth decay. It also shows they cultivated relationships with the NIDR and that a sugar industry expert panel overlapped by all but one member with the NIDR panel that influenced the priorities for the NIH tooth decay program. The majority of the research priorities and initial projects largely failed to produce results on a large scale, the authors found.

Understandably, the Sugar Association is not pleased.  Here is what the Sugar Association told Time Magazine:

It is challenging for the current Sugar Association staff to comment directly on documents and events that allegedly occurred before and during Richard Nixon’s presidency, given the staff has changed entirely since the 1970s. However, we are confused as to the relevance of attempts to dredge up history when decades of modern science has provided answers regarding the role of diet in the pathogenesis of dental caries… A combined approach of reducing the amount of time sugars and starches are in the mouth, drinking fluoridated water, and brushing and flossing teeth, is the most effective way to reduce dental caries.

As Stan Glantz pointed out in his blog post, “This sounds similar to the statement from Brown and Williamson Tobacco put out in 1995 in response to our first papers based on tobacco industry documents.”

Distracting researchers from focusing on underlying causes is a strategy perfected by the tobacco industry and copied widely by other industries making potentially harmful products, as shown clearly in the just released film, Merchants of Doubt (a must-see).

Mar 10 2015

World Health Organization: Eat less sugar

The World Health Organization (WHO) has finally officially released its recommendations for sugar intake.  I say “officially,” because I posted an earlier version these guidelines late in January.

The new—and official—WHO guideline, “Sugar intake for adult and children,” makes these recommendations for adults and children:

  • For general health, Reduce daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake.
  • For additional health benefits: Reduce daily intake to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day.

This recommendation is based on a scientific review as well as comments by groups such as Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The British advocacy group, Action on Sugar, is disappointed in the recommendations, thinks they don’t go far enough, and suspects that heavy food industry lobbying was at work.

There is absolutely NO nutritional requirement for free sugars in our diets, therefore AoS is disappointed that the 5% recommendation is conditional. The WHO used the GRADE[Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation] system for evaluating the evidence which is useful for drug trials, but is not appropriate for the links between diet and health. This has allowed the food industry to sow the seeds of doubt amongst the WHO, who have failed to come up with the strong recommendation that is so vitally needed, especially for children.

On the other hand, the food industry says the recommendations are misleading and based on weak evidence.

The US Sugar Association [said]…Such a claim is serious, and requires high-quality data, particularly given the potential for consumer confusion and the likelihood that the economic impact to developing countries will be severe. There was a need for extensive debate, especially before the 5% value was included in official recommendations, said the European Committee of Sugar Manufacturers (CEFS). “Especially because the data this value is based on was deemed to be of very low quality by both WHO and the dental health review authors,” it said…. The sugar industry said that sugar in isolation could not be blamed for obesity and asked people to focus on what the WHO defined as the primary cause of obesity: an imbalance between calories and activity.

The WHO recommendations are similar to those issued for decades by national health agencies.  The last time WHO tried to issue the 10% of calories advice in 2003, it got clobbered by lobbyists.

This time, lobbyists didn’t succeed.  This is progress.

Tomorrow: more on sugar lobbying.


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